Smith-Madrone is quintessentially Old School California. If you asked me for an authentic wine tasting experience, I would be remiss to not include them on any itinerary. They're the Deans of Old School.
Perched atop Spring Mountain, it's a long, twisty drive from either Santa Rosa or St. Helena to reach Smith-Madrone. Their low-key property is hidden between fancier neighbors like Pride Mountain, Barnett, and Schweiger. Walk around the property and you'll find magnificent views clear across Napa Valley.
Brothers Charlie and Stuart Smith, both pushing 70 years old, are a delightful anachronism. Their winemaking philosophy, not to mention the facilities, remains largely unchanged since the first vintage of 1977. The vineyards are dry farmed, which encourages terroir in the wine through the grapevine's struggle to find water and nutrients. Smith-Madrone is the definition of a small family operation: Stu manages the vineyard, Charlie makes the wine, and Stu's son Sam is assistant winemaker, the next generation to carry forward the legacy.
When you arrive for your appointment, you'll meet one of the brothers themselves in the old barn. Stu is a storyteller and humorist who'll keep you entertained for hours. The first time I met him, we bashed Australian wines for a good hour. Charlie is a bit more stoic, serious about his wine. Tastings are held in the shadows of the towering barrel stacks. There are no seats. There are no tasting notes. There is no paired charcuterie plate. What you will get is the incredibly priceless time with a Napa winemaking legend and samples of their three (four if you're lucky) wines.
Smith-Madrone only produces Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The fourth wine is a premium Cabernet called Cook's Flat Reserve which eschews the extreme boldness of other Napa "Cult Cabs". Each of their wines fascinate me not just because they are good, but because they are approachable while young and supremely age-worthy.
And their Cabernet, at around $50 a bottle, is a steal. The most recent release, the 2014 vintage, has aromas of pipe tobacco, unripe black plum, blackberry, and exceptionally integrated oak. When you sip it, a rush of juiciness washes over your palate and the silky texture falls effortlessly down the hatch. The medium strength tannins cling to the insides of your cheeks to extend the long dark cocoa finish.
Not only is the Cab delicious upon release, but it can age for 30+ years. At Smith-Madrone's 2017 harvest party*, they opened bottles of the 1992, 1988, and 1979 vintages. I generally dislike very old wines because most fall out of balance, but these wines were impeccable.
Smith-Madrone's Riesling is one of my all-time favorite white wines. Period. It has all the mouthwatering acidity and crisp fruit of American Rieslings, but also the rare Petrol fume character that punctuates superlative Alsatian or German Riesling. Smith-Madrone's version marries all that with complexity and elegance.
If you're too hip for Chardonnay, the vinous target of all "mom jokes," you should rethink your position. The Smith Brothers craft an awesome Chardonnay. The new release, vintage 2015, is perfectly balanced with lush lemon, apple, and pear fruits, smooth body, and a precise amount of new oak. A whopping amount of acidity ensures this wine never even tip-toes near dullness, and the finish is as elegant as they come. This Chardonnay isn't your mom's Tuesday night crutch.
Whenever visiting Sonoma or Napa, you need to careen into the mountains for Smith-Madrone. You'll end your trip feeling like you've stumbled onto the best secret of your life.
Open by appointment, 11:00 or 2:00 M, W, F, & Sat only.
*Incidentally, the October 2017 Harvest Party I attended took place the day before the Napa-Sonoma wildfires started. Smith-Madrone was in serious danger, but luckily survived the fires unscathed.